Janisse Ray grew up in a junkyard along U.S. Highway 1, hidden from Florida-bound vacationers by the hedge at the edge of the road and by hulks of old cars and stacks of blown-out tires. Ecology of a Cracker Childhood tells how a childhood spent in rural isolation and steeped in religious fundamentalism grew into a passion to save the almost vanished longleaf pine ecosystem that once covered the South. In language at once colloquial, elegiac, and informative, Ray redeems two Souths. "Suffused with the same history-haunted sense of loss that imprints so much of the South and its literature."
I don’t think that message is getting out much these days. In fact, it seems like the opposite holds true. We judge books and people by their covers. We dress and act like we expect to be judged by our covers. Image has dominion over content. So if I said that I had just read a book by a woman who grew up in a junkyard in rural Georgia, who was raised in a fundamentalist Christian church so strict they didn’t allow Christmas, you might think you have heard you need to know.
You would be wrong. The book is called Ecology of a Cracker Childhood by Janisse Ray. And although I have just given you an accurate description of her story, (right out of the book jacket, in fact), it does nothing to convey what a moving and picturesque memoir this book really is. The word “cracker” stands for a southern, especially Georgian, poor white trash. The term probably comes from an early English word meaning “braggart”. But there is no bragging in Janisse Ray’s memoir. It is sad and thoughtful, passionately yet simply told.
Ray’s childhood was isolated by her family’s rural home and her father’s fundamentalist beliefs. Her only playmates were her older brothers and sister. Her only role models were her parents and an odd assortment of relatives. But living on the edge of town meant she also lived on the edge of wilderness. Her father’s junkyard was surrounded by an expanse of long leaf pine forest. Janisse played in the woods as often as she played among the mountains of wrecked cars. She grew to love the outdoors. When she finally left home for college, she majored in ecology. She has spent the greater part of her career campaigning to save the last few virgin stands of the long leaf pine- an entire ecosystem that is being decimated by our society’s insatiable desire for lumber.
It is the long leaf pine that you see all over Wilmington, left for its meager shade in housing developments after the hardwoods have been logged off. But these aren’t first or even second generation trees. To get an idea of the size and majesty of the pine forest as Janisse Ray remembers it, visit Hugh McRae park and look at the size of the trees there.
Ray knows that the pine woods seem monotonous to the untrained eye. But she points out the incredible diversity of the forest is there- you just need to “look real close”. She implies the same about her own family. She may have grown up a “redneck”, but her father was a mechanical and mathematical genius, although he never went to school. The people in her family all had high IQ’s, and would sit by the fire at night doing figures they way my mother would sit by the fire and knit. With the genius also came a history of mental depression. The children lived in fear of being “took sick”, like so many in their family. And yet, Janisse Ray repeats a letter her father wrote about his stay in the Georgia State Mental Institution, and it is the single most moving piece I have ever read on mental illness.
At every turn, this book offers the reader something unexpected, or heartbreaking, or funny, or uplifting. It will remind readers of the best of Annie Dillard. But I don’t think that even Annie Dillard could have found as much beauty in the piles of rusty cars as Janisse Ray has. We are incredibly lucky that she took the time to “look real close”.
This work of non-fiction traces Ray's
Ray's nostalgic love of the land around her sparks some political tones in the book. And this is where I'm not too excited about the book.
I have to say while I agree almost 100% with Ray's love/concern for the environment, I do wish she had stuck to telling her southern fried stories and then wrote a follow up book concerning all of the ecological issues. These issues never squashed the story, but just seemed to drag it down a little.
All in all, a read I'm glad I picked up, though nothing super-stellar.
Wrapped in the sweet cadence of her language, I especially enjoyed reading about Ray's family. That was a colorful bunch. Most of the men suffered from mental illness, which Ray depicted with dignity. But they were also resourceful - living off the land and inventing machines from scraps. I could hear their drawl in every page.
All in all, I enjoyed this short book about this beautiful region of our country, their Southern ways and Ray's determination to protect and preserve the land that she loves.
Ray interweaves her memories of her family with chapters on the ecology of the longleaf pine forests which have been nearly whipped out in the southern US. I found the chapters on her family and childhood more effective than the ones dealing with ecology, although some of these were very informative. The later ones are a bit heavy-handed in her attempts to be eloquent.
very readable, informative and thoughtful.
I am goingto keep this around for a bit since I think my son will enjoy it.
Of those, the personal reflections are the most effectively written, though to me the ecological descriptions are more innately interesting. The book makes the attempt to fill the gaps in several lines of literary exploration and I support the effort. In all, however, I think that the book's real impact is too limited to the author, for whom the project was no doubt monumental. For the reader, it's a lightweight.
Ray's father was something of a mechanical genius (reminded me of my own dad) and he ran a junkyard, and could find anything in it - even though it was this vast expanse of land filled with . . . junk. I thoroughly enjoyed how she wrote about all of her family, from her father, her mother, her grandmothers, her grandfather, her brothers, and so on. I loved reading the parts where she and her brothers would play in junkyard cars, how their imaginations were in overdrive. They played a lot like my brother and I did. The Rays didn't have TV, she couldn't wear pants, and she couldn't show skin above her elbows or above her knees. (fundamentalist upbringing)
I think what I loved about CRACKER most was Ray's conversational way of writing the chapters that were from her naturalist/environmentalist background. It was interesting to find out about pitcher plants, the savanna, salamanders, red-cockaded woodpeckers, and the myriad of other fascinating species that live there. I learned about fire keeping down hardwood growth that destroys this delicate environment. How many long leaf pines there used to be, and how many there are now. (not much) I learned how it's not right to simply plant trees in a row, crowding out the sunlight that's needed to sustain plants and animals alike, and many other ways we impact nature without a clue. It was truly eye-opening.
I'm glad she wrote this book, and I'm glad I read it.